More Russia wars
The US political crisis cannot be reduced to a single party or individual, writes Daniel Lazare
With the US presidential contest seemingly heading for a fiery breakdown, Washington - or at least a small corner of it - is busy refighting the ‘great Russia wars’ of the previous election cycle.
The reason is a series of releases by John Ratcliffe, the rightwing Texas congressman whom Trump named director of national intelligence in July 2019 with the express purpose of “rein[ing] in” intelligence agencies that in his opinion “have run amok”. The result is a stream of intelligence documents whose purpose is to throw Democrats off balance by showing how the three-year destabilisation effort known as Russiagate may have begun.
Russiagate is a classic example of how a far-fetched conspiracy theory can seize control of an entire political class. For Britons, it no doubt calls to mind the great ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt against Jeremy Corbyn - except that the “collusion delusion”, as Trump calls it, went on far longer and sought to prove not only that Trump was a bigot (something everybody already knew), but that he was in the pay of a foreign power. Since there was no way Trump could have survived such charges if proven, the campaign was plainly aimed at driving him out of office and undoing an entire presidential election.
It was a palace coup, in other words, in which top law-enforcement officials - acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein - secretly discussed bugging Trump or using the US constitution’s 25th amendment to force him to resign.1 The effort flopped when special prosecutor Robert Mueller reported in March 2019 that he was unable to come up with evidence that the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government”. But Russiagate begat Ukrainegate - an effort to prove that Trump had tried to do Russia’s bidding by holding up a weapons shipment for the Ukraine. Ukrainegate then begat impeachment, which flopped as well.
So Russiagate also stands out as an example of how destabilisation leads to more destabilisation. The conclusion that Trump drew from the entire pseudo-scandal is that Democrats will stop at nothing to bring him down. Hence, he has made it clear that he will stop at nothing to prevent Democrats from winning next month. As Trump tells thousands of armed followers to “stand back and stand by”, because “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left”, an ordinary election thus shows increasing signs of turning into a civil war.
Ratcliffe’s first major disclosure concerns transcripts of phone calls that Mike Flynn, the ex-army general and intelligence chief whom Trump had named as his national security advisor, had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016.
The conversations caused a storm when word got out in February 2017, because they seemed to show Flynn working behind the scenes with Russia to undermine US policy, while Barack Obama was still in office. The Washington Post described them as a “full-blown crisis” while the New Yorker said they were “possibly illegal”, because one occurred on the very day that the Obama administration announced that it was expelling 35 Russian diplomats “in retaliation for Russia’s efforts to swing the election in Trump’s favour”.2 A few weeks later, Flynn was forced to step down - not because of the conversations themselves, but because he had supposedly lied about them to vice-president Mike Pence.
It was all quite mysterious, but the transcripts shed light on what the incident was really about. The first thing to keep in mind is that the conversations occurred during a constitutional grey zone, the nine- or 10-week interregnum between election and inauguration on January 20 2017. Bill Clinton caused a small ruckus by meeting with then-Mexican president Carlos Salinas before formally taking office in early 1993, while Obama, trying to keep a discreet distance, nonetheless sent ex-secretary of state Madeleine Albright to chat up various heads of state during an emergency economic summit a few days after his election in November 2008. So Flynn may have been pushing it by playing “an active role on the presidential transition team” in late 2016, as last year’s Mueller report noted, “coordinating policy positions and communicating with foreign government officials, including Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak”. But he probably assumed that he was well within his rights.
Still, the discussions touched on a number of sensitive subjects according to the transcripts.3 On December 23 2016, Flynn told Kislyak that “Moscow and Washington … will not achieve stability in the Middle East without working with each other against this radical Islamist crowd.” On December 29, he urged Russia not to overreact to Obama’s expulsion of the Russian diplomats:
Number one, what I would ask you guys to do - and make sure you ... convey this, OK? - do not, do not, uh, allow this administration to box us in, right now, OK? … So, you know, depending on ... what, uh, actions they take over this current issue of the cyber stuff … what I would ask Russia to do is … only make it reciprocal …. Don’t go any further than you have to. Because I don’t want us to get into something that has to escalate on a, you know, on a tit for tat. You follow me, ambassador?
Kislyak did indeed follow, and the next day Russia announced that it would pause before taking retaliatory measures. “Great move on delay (by V Putin),” Trump tweeted in response. “I always knew he was very smart!”
Corporate media went wild, and not only was Flynn given the boot for lying to Pence, but months later he found himself pleading guilty to charges of making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” after the FBI questioned him as well. But the real problem was not misstatements, but the US line on both Syria and Russia, which Flynn had crossed in dangerous ways.
What is wrong with US-Russian cooperation against ‘Islamic terrorism’? In fact, the idea ran counter to official Washington policy, which was less to oppose Islamic State than to use it as a battering ram against Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s main Middle East ally. As secretary of state John Kerry told a group of pro-rebel supporters in October 2016 about Russia’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad,
The reason Russia came in is because ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] was getting stronger. Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth, and that’s why Russia came in, because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got … Putin in to support him. So it’s truly complicated.4
This does not mean that Obama wanted a Daesh government - at least not exactly. But it shows that the administration’s goal was to stand by and watch as IS brought Assad to his knees - and then swoop down, negotiate his resignation and replace him with a leader more amenable to US interests; and, of course, those of Israel and Saudi Arabia as well.
It was a pipedream that would have ended with an IS takeover. But it was what the Washington foreign-policy establishment wanted and therefore what it was determined to get. The other dangerous line that Flynn crossed, of course, involved Russia itself. Relations had plunged since Russia’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and then had taken another dip when Russia-backed Syrian troops routed the last rebel forces from Aleppo in December 2016. US policies had ended in a double disaster, and anti-Kremlin hawks were therefore in no mood for a national security advisor who wanted to form alliance with a country that had allegedly installed his boss in office.
Flynn had to go. As an anti-Trump article put it in the New York Observer - a weekly, ironically, owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner - the intelligence community was rising up in revolt “against a White House it considers leaky, untruthful and penetrated by the Kremlin”.5
But how to make him go was another issue. A second tidbit released by Ratcliffe concerns handwritten notes from a meeting in late January 2017 - a month after the Assad regime’s recapture of Aleppo and just a day after FBI agents grilled Flynn about the Kislyak talks in his new White House office. The meeting involved top officials from the department of justice and the FBI, including FBI general counsel James Baker. Flynn was clearly the main topic.
Referring to the Logan Act - a law against private diplomacy dating from 1799 - the notes state: “Logan Act - ‘no reasonable prosecutor’ - uphill battle - other transition teams - first time to use it.”6
It sounds like something out of a mystery novel. But what it seems to mean is that, while someone suggested using the Logan Act to nail Flynn to the wall, the general sense was that this would not fly, because the law was a dead letter that had never led to a single conviction in more than two centuries.
The idea that top Obama administration officials would think of using the Logan Act against members of an incoming administration engaged in activities that were both traditional and routine is startling in itself. But the notes go on: “Baker - how do you assess 1001, when you wouldn’t prosecute the underlying crime?” Since section 1001 is the portion of the US criminal code dealing with lying to investigators, the meaning seems clear as well. How do you prosecute someone for lying, Baker seems to be asking, when what he’s lying about is not criminal in nature?
This may sound technical, but it involves an important point. Investigators cannot pick people up off the street, pepper them with questions, and then throw them in jail if they are less than truthful. They have got to have a reason to question them: ie, a reasonable belief that they are engaged in activities that are against the law. This is why Trump attorney general William Barr moved to dismiss Flynn’s guilty plea last May: because his conversations with the Russian ambassador were perfectly above board and whatever lies he may have told were therefore irrelevant. (The Flynn case is still in litigation.) The notes released by Ratcliffe show Baker and other top officials wrestling with the same problem, but still opting to forge ahead.
The third Ratcliffe disclosure, finally, concerns handwritten notes that then-CIA director John Brennan jotted down after briefing Obama about Russian interference three months earlier. In a recent letter, Ratcliffe informed the Senate judiciary committee that the notes indicated that US intelligence had gotten its hands on a
Russian intelligence analysis alleging that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against US presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.7
If Russian intelligence believed that Clinton was trying to create a scandal out of thin air, then the implication is that it regarded the charges of Russian interference as baseless to begin with. This does not mean that the Russians were correct. Indeed, they may have been feeding Americans disinformation in order to throw them off course. But it certainly suggests that US intelligence had ample reason to proceed cautiously. Instead, they swallowed the story of dastardly Russian misdeeds hook, line and sinker, and threw the country into turmoil for years to come.
So what does it all mean? Or, better yet, what doesn’t it mean?
One is that, while Mike Flynn was unquestionably the victim of a political hit job, that does not make him a hero in any sense. To the contrary, he is an arch-reactionary who sought to defeat IS not because he wanted to make the Middle East a better place, but because he wanted to make it a safer stomping ground for US imperial interests. If he had joined forces with Russia, the effect would have been to shore up the Assad regime - something that would have brought howls of protest from both Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries that Trump wishes to placate at any cost. So even if he had not gotten himself canned, he still would have wound up in deep trouble.
But it does not mean that the Democrats are good guys either. They sought to bring Flynn down for the worst reasons possible: because he threatened to interfere with the neo-conservative war drive against Russia and because his efforts in Syria would have benefited a regime that Americans, Israelis and Saudis had all targeted for destruction. The relevance in terms of the upcoming elections is obvious. If Trump loses, it does not mean that progressives will win. Rather, it means that another war party will slip back into office in order to turn back the clock to the bellicose policies of Obama, Kerry and Clinton.
On the other hand, what the Ratcliffe disclosures show is the degree to which intelligence agencies, Democrats and corporate media in general had gotten lost in a labyrinth of their own making. They did not know whether allegations of Russian interference were true or false, whether they were Clinton or Kremlin information, disinformation or neither. But, since they had committed themselves to a revanchist policy against Putin and Assad, they decided that truth was secondary and that winning was the only thing that mattered.
So they threw themselves into one of the most extraordinary destabilisation campaigns in modern political history. The result was a civil war within the Washington establishment that is now breaking out into the open, as the Trump-Biden contest nears its climax.
The bottom line is that the US political crisis cannot be reduced to a single party or individual. The breakdown is entirely systemic.
The quote starts at 26.10 at youtube.com/watch?v=e4phB-_pXDM&t=1575s.↩︎